Most breastfeeding mothers can eat pretty much whatever they like1. But some exclusively breastfed babies can have allergies or intolerances to traces of food proteins that enter breastmilk from mother’s diet. The most common food to trigger a reaction in susceptible babies through mother’s milk is cows’ milk (see Milk Allergy in Babies) but other allergens (substances that cause an allergic reaction) could be a trigger for your baby too. Other common allergens include egg, soya, fish/seafood, peanut or tree nuts, wheat or other grains, and certain fruits. The first line of treatment for a food allergy is for the mother to try to find the food(s) causing the reaction in her baby by way of an elimination diet.
What is an elimination diet?
An elimination diet or exclusion diet is one that removes the foods from one’s diet that are causing an allergic response e.g. cows’ milk. It is not as easy as it sounds because cows’ milk products can be in all manner of food stuffs as “hidden dairy”. This means that cows’ milk proteins can be unexpectedly listed in the ingredients of something you wouldn’t expect, or disguised by unusual names. Also, if a baby is sensitive to one thing they may be sensitive to other common allergens too so it is trial and error to know which foods to avoid. For example it is not advisable to substitute soya products for dairy during an elimination trial, unless you know for sure that your baby doesn’t react to soy, because soya is also highly allergenic. Elimination diets can be difficult to follow and are recommended under supervision of a dietitian to ensure a heathy diet for mom (Infant proctocolitis website, Wambach & Riordan, 2015; Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (ABM), 2011).
How do I start an elimination diet?
Some mothers try eliminating one allergen at a time to see if there is any improvement while others choose to follow a low allergen diet or total elimination diet from the beginning.
Eliminating one food at a time
The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (ABM) protocol describes the different ways to go about elimination diets firstly by eliminating one food or a group of foods at a time:
To make it as simple as possible, one can start by eliminating the most likely suspects for allergies one at a time (i.e., cow’s milk [and products made with cow’s milk like cheese, butter, ice cream, other dairy products, beef products also affect some babies], soy, citrus fruits, eggs, nuts, peanuts, wheat, corn, strawberries, and chocolate). Mothers are instructed to eliminate one food or food group (e.g., dairy products) at a time and wait a minimum of 2 weeks and up to 4 weeks. Most cases will improve within 72–96 hours.
The protocol goes on to describe how a mother can reintroduce a food if the baby’s symptoms remain the same and move on to another food to eliminate. They point out:
when eliminating cow’s milk, eliminate anything made with cow’s milk, not forgetting the specific protein components like casein, whey, lactoglobulin, etc.; it is important to read labels for these other component ingredients
It can be very difficult to recognize labeling of food allergens used as ingredients in foods. Even trace amounts can sometimes be recognised by the human body—but not all trace amounts will be labelled. Some medications, sweets, cosmetics and even asthma sprays and vaccines may have allergenic ingredients (ABM, 2011; Minchin, 2015). Some mothers trying to follow a soy free diet have noticed that Pregnacare causes a reaction (Vitamin E is listed as derived from soya).
Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) have produced a guide to help identify hidden allergens in several elimination diets:
Another guide to spotting ingredients that can contain allergens is on Breastfeeding Online by Kevin J. Kelly, MD.
Dairy elimination Diet
The Infant Proctocolitis website is a great general resource for parents of babies with allergies or intolerances. It has a fact sheet for a dairy elimination diet. This describes all the places to find hidden dairy and the unexpected names used for cows’ milk proteins. It includes a recommendation to take calcium supplements and a useful tips box for maximising your absorption of calcium;
Calcium on a Dairy-Free Diet
It is strongly recommended that people eliminating dairy take 1,000mg of calcium a day in supplements. 500mg of calcium twice a day works best. Always check with a doctor before starting any supplements.
Soy elimination diet
The Infant Proctocolitis website also has a handout for the Soy Elimination Diet; a list of soy foods and ingredients and places soya can “hide”.
A lactose free diet?
Having a reaction to traces of cows’ milk protein in the diet or via a mother’s diet via her breastmilk is not the same as lactose intolerance although they could both be present at the same time. For further reading see Lactose Intolerance in Babies.
The low allergen or total elimination diet
Another approach for an elimination diet is to eat a low allergen diet of only relatively “safe” foods. Once your baby’s symptoms have settled you can reintroduce one food group at a time to identify the offender(s).
For babies with more significant symptoms, one can place the mother on a very low-allergen diet of foods like lamb, pears, squash, and rice. Again, this approach requires ongoing consultation with an experienced dietician.
Ask Dr Sears describes a diet that attempts protein elimination, i.e. cutting out dairy, beef, eggs, chicken, shellfish, soy, corn, wheat, and peanuts (plus any other foods you have learned may affect your baby).
Other ideas in the ABM protocol include keeping a food diary to pinpoint the offending food, or eliminating likely allergens based on where the baby lives. For example, in some areas, hen’s eggs are a common cause of allergy, whereas in other localities peanuts are a common allergen. Diana Cassar-Uhl explains:
Unsure your diet is causing the trouble? Keep a log of what you’re eating and another log of how your baby behaves. Watch sleeping, fussy periods, diaper content and frequency, rashes, and anything else that raises a question for you. It may be that something you ate on Monday affects your baby on Thursday – so keep that in mind as you look for correlations.
Elimination diet recipes
Allergy Friendly Recipes Cows’ Milk Protein Allergy Support
Meal Ideas for Dairy-Free/Soya-Free Eating from the Infant Procotcolitis website
How long will it take for an elimination diet to work?
Once a mother has excluded the trigger food from her diet, her baby’s symptoms will usually start to improve within a few days however it can take two to four weeks in some cases. (Minchin, 2015; ABM, 2011).
If your low allergen diet doesn’t seem to be working, consider avoiding other allergens like cigarette smoke, synthetic fragrances, bleach or detergents (including sterilising fluid residues in baby bottles), caffeine, artificial sweeteners (e.g. aspartame), artificial colours, preservatives or oral contraceptives (Minchin, 2015). There are more ideas in Milk Allergy in Babies.
Do I really need to go on an elimination diet?
Restricting a diet may not always be necessary if symptoms are mild. Discuss this with your health professional. Dr Jack Newman (Canadian paediatrician and breastfeeding expert) also points out in his book and on his Facebook page that there can be other causes for symptoms that may seem similar to allergy for example low milk supply. Contact your IBCLC so she can take a full history and rule out any other causes of fussy behaviour.
One day at a time
Although making changes to your diet is not easy this may only be for a short time and will almost always be better for your baby than any alternatives. Diana Cassar-Uhl says:
Remember that this change in your diet doesn’t have to be forever. Many babies can tolerate small amounts of offending proteins that pass to them in breastmilk after the 6- or 9-month mark. Take one day at a time, and know, without question, that if your baby is struggling with breastmilk, he will do far worse on regular baby milk preparations, which are made from the allergens you’re trying to avoid! The available preparations for highly sensitive babies are very expensive and don’t offer the other protections from allergy and disease your milk provides.
Reintroducing cows’ milk or other allergens
GI Kids explain that children tend to grow out of cows’ milk protein allergy (or become more tolerant). They suggest that half of all babies with symptoms will have developed a tolerance by one year of age, and that mothers of most allergic breastfed infants will need to stay on an elimination diet for 6-12 months. After this point you can discuss with your health professional or dietitian about whether to try to reintroduce cows’ milk produce or other known allergens into yours and your breastfed babies diet and if so, how. There is a useful document by NHS Bath that describes a “Milk Ladder” approach see: Reintroduction of Milk into Your Child’s Diet.
Will an elimination diet in pregnancy help my next baby?
A paper by Fleischer et al, 2013 and the guidelines from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (2013) do not advise avoidance/elimination diets during pregnancy or lactation as a means to prevent allergies.
Allergy author Maureen Minchin agrees with general advice not to exclude foods during pregnancy. However if there is a known problem in either parent e.g. if mother knows she has cows’ milk allergy, Minchin says it may be worth avoiding cows’ milk, beef and blood products. Or, in the case of the allergic mother, at least reducing these allergens in her diet until she is symptom free (ideally before conception).
in general, it is best not to exclude any foods from the mother’s diet, as breastfeeding is intended to create tolerance. In general, it is also best to exclude from the diet of the pregnant woman and breastfeeding mother foods to which she -and/or the biological father of the child – is clearly reactive
Help and support
The UK based charity CMPA Support has several Facebook forums including regional groups for mother to mother support, see CMPA Support for Breastfeeding (Facebook). And TED Mamas is an international peer-to-peer Facebook support group for breastfeeding mothers who are following a total elimination diet.
Information in this article is not tailored for you and your baby. Always consult with your health professionals for advice that takes yours and your baby’s medical history into account.